Sunday, August 19, 2007

Is DITA Just A Story?

Over the last month I’ve attended a couple of conventions related to my work as a writer on pop-culture. A couple of conversations at those conventions made me realize that the worlds of commercial publishing and technical publishing may be closer than I had at first thought.

At the first convention in San Diego at the end of July I was talking to an editor about adapting my Beatles book into a graphic novel format. But what really caught my attention was that he wanted the story told in a non-linear format.

Then last week at a literary convention here in Austin there was a general discussion about the future of story telling for the NET-generation and how could hard copy books compete. Ideas around novels written in blog, wiki, or e-mail formats were banded around. Then that phrase “non-linear” popped up again.

Further conversation revealed that for most of the people in the discussion, “non-linear” meant breaking down the overall narrative into smaller chunks that could then be presented in different orders. Each chunk would be self-contained but when assembled made an different reading experience. Heck you could even reuse some chunks to build different narratives.

This, I thought, is sounding familiar. So I “switched hats” and started to explain the concept and ideas behind DITA to the literary crowd.

I will admit I’m a late convert to DITA. I’ve been around structured authoring for many years, I was even part of the group that developed one of the first topic based authoring systems and standards. When I first heard about DITA, I didn’t think it was anything new, just a new flashy label for well proven concepts.

But DITA caught the imagination of the technical publishing industry, and the rate of acceptance and adoption made me realize that there was “something” about DITA that allowed for an almost “instinctive” understanding of its concepts and application.

Then I started to play around with DITA, even write a few documents using it, and I was convinced. Sure it may not suit everyone or every project, but it is definitely a large part of the industry’s future.

Which brings me back to the conversation at the convention.

I finished my explanation of DITA and how a topic is broken down into three parts, Concept., Procedure and Reference, when one of the editors paused, thought a second, and came back with:

“So each topic is just like the traditional three act story structure – it has a beginning, a middle and an end.”

That’s the moment the cartoon light hovering above my head switched on. Perhaps the secret to DITA’s success is not only the great technical and business benefits it brings, but that it is also recognizable on an instinctive level.

Using DITA allows technical communicators to simply tell a story.

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